With votes looming on President Obama's gun-control measures, the White House has already tried all the traditional ways to influence senators and members of the House. There have been invitations to the White House, rides on Air Force One, out-of-town speeches, television interviews, even dinners with Republicans. But one thing the White House did on Friday showed that the president is willing as well to use some new 21st-century tools to keep the pressure on.
Friday, it was the first-ever White House "thunderclap," a coordinated accumulation of tweets and Facebook posts that have been likened to an online flash mob. The notion behind creating a campaign on the website thunderclap.com is that people can pledge their tweets to a cause and the tweets are held until a particular goal is reached. Once the number of pledges hits the goal, all the tweets and posts are released simultaneously to make the biggest possible impact.
The White House's goal of 10,000 supporters was reached shortly after 1 p.m. Friday.
Surprised critics quickly blasted the effort. One group, the Patriot Perspective, accused the White House of "asking people to support their call for greater government power via a massive antigun Twitterbomb." The group, which champions what it calls "American libertarian values," said it is "very collectivist and quite sinister to see the White House orchestrating and agitating for greater government power by becoming the puppeteers of an engineered outcry."
But the White House cast its campaign as simply rallying those Americans who support tougher controls on unregulated gun sales. "If you want to do something to prevent future tragedies like the one in Newtown, now is the time to act," declared the White House on its Thunderclap page. The White House warned that members of Congress "are only going to act on them if they hear from the American people."
No one expects Republican lawmakers to change their positions on guns simply because of 10,000 tweets on one afternoon. But the campaign is further evidence that the president is willing to use all the tools at his disposal to keep the pressure on Congress. He also took the unusual step of turning his weekly address over to someone else on Saturday. Instead of speaking himself, he gave the airtime to Francine Wheeler, mother of Ben, one of the 6-year-old victims at Newtown.
"The president and his supporters will use — and test — all methods of persuasion, especially social media," said James Thurber, who is director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "They will try to be innovative and set a new pace for issue campaigns using the latest technology." Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, called the effort a nice complement to the more-traditional steps that are already taken. "The inside game is going reasonably well. So you invest creatively in the outside game," he told National Journal Daily. "Can't hurt."
Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who has coauthored books on Congress with Mann, sees the latest moves by the White House as an attempt to stand up to the unrelenting pressure from groups like the National Rifle Association. "You have got to change the political dynamic," he said. "So you use a kitchen-sink approach."
The thunderclap, he suggested, may prove more useful at rallying supporters than changing minds in Congress.
"You want to keep people engaged and you want to give them a sense that they are doing something. And you want to do anything you can to keep the focus on this issue and the pressure on those who would like to see it just fade away," Ornstein said. "That is what the gun lobby has been able to do in the past. They lashed themselves to the mast and would ride it out until the initial level of outrage subsided and people got distracted by other things."
With the White House efforts to keep the issue alive, he said, "I don't think that works this time."
He added that the high visibility of the Newtown families — including delivery of the president's weekend address — could prove more persuasive with the Republican members, particularly those who represent districts more ambivalent about guns. "These are far more potent than the usual suspects who are out there promoting any kind of action," he said, recalling watching one Newtown family member talking about her slain sister. "I was almost overcome. You look at this poor little girl who is incredibly articulate and it has got immense power."
With everything that the White House is using to make its argument, he said, "the main thing is to loom over all of this with the message that we will not let it go and we are going to be all over the place with millions of dollars of Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg's money, with kids who survived Newtown, kids whose siblings died at Newtown, with parents of the victims, with Gabby Giffords and others all over the place, saying they deserve a vote."